Federal Judge's Ruling Chills Free Speech

Contact: Ciara Matthews, (202) 223-8073

Defamation Suit Endangers Right to Criticize Elected Officials

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A federal court today ruled that former Rep. Steve Driehaus’s defamation lawsuit, alleging that the Susan B. Anthony List cost him his job and a “loss of livelihood” by educating constituents about his vote in favor of taxpayer funding of abortion in the health care bill, should go to trial. The court also dismissed a challenge by the Susan B. Anthony List to Ohio’s False Statement law which empowers state officials to enforce stiff fines—even prison time—for criticism of candidates that they deem to be “false.” 

“No politician, bureaucracy, or court should have the power to silence the right of citizens to criticize elected officials,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, President of SBA List.  “Ohio’s False Statement Law allows candidates like Steve Driehaus to silence any speech critical of them by simply filing a complaint with the Ohio Elections Commission. Then, when the election is over, the candidates can dismiss their complaint so the law cannot be reviewed by the federal courts.  An unelected commission should not have the ability to decide what is true and false speech, nor tell us what speech we can and cannot hear.”

Since Driehaus filed his suit last year, SBA List’s arguments have gained widespread acceptance.  The ACLU of Ohio, in an amicus brief filed last October, came to the group’s defense, declaring unequivocally, “The people have an absolute right to criticize their public officials, the government should not be the arbiter of true or false speech, and the best answer for bad speech is more speech.”  The lawyer who wrote the brief is an abortion rights advocate.

“Steve Driehaus’ constituents saw the truth about his pro-abortion record and made their voices heard on Election Day,” said Dannenfelser.  “Their conclusion – that Steve Driehaus voted for a bill allowing taxpayer funding of abortion – is backed by every major pro-life organization in the country along with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Congressional Research Service and other nonpartisan organizations.  The SBA List will continue to defend its actions, the voters and the right to criticize our elected officials.”

“The SBA List’s speech was true, or at the very least it was its protected opinion about the meaning of Obamacare,” said James Bopp, Jr. counsel for SBA List. “Yet the court found that the SBA List’s speech about Driehaus might be defamatory and ordered a trial to determine whether it is or not. In a Supreme Court case called NY Times v. Sullivan, the Court established special rules for the type of speech that can be considered defamatory of public figures like elected officials. In order to be defamatory, the speech must obviously be false and cause injury, but it must also be made with actual malice. That’s a legal term that means that the speaker either knew the speech was false and said it anyway, or the speaker recklessly disregarded finding out whether the speech was true or false. That plainly was not the case with the SBA List. They researched Obamacare themselves, and they also read the opinions of other groups that also concluded that Obamacare provided taxpayer funds for abortion services. Yet this court found, in spite of that, and in spite of the fact that their speech is true or at least their protected opinion, that their speech might be defamatory. This ruling means that anybody criticizing a candidate is in danger of a defamation claim.”


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